Wise fools

It is not the Scripture experts, those who are professionally concerned with God, who recognize him; they are too caught up in the intricacies of their detailed knowledge. Their great learning distracts them from simply gazing upon the whole, upon the reality of God as he reveals himself—for people who know so much about the complexity of the issues, it seems that it just cannot be so simple.
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 342.

Though Pope Benedict is here writing about the Scripture scholars who interacted with Jesus in first century Jerusalem and elsewhere, the statement can be extended to those of the modern day, as well. Recognizing the simplicity of God’s revelation is a serious challenge to people trained to create and maintain complexity. Yet it is not impossible even for these. In the history of the Church, there have been numerous Saints who were excellently educated, some of the best minds of their time, like St Basil of Caesarea. But there were many more of more humble intellect, and we even know of Saints who were illiterate among the Desert Fathers. Pope Benedict’s book, in fact, points a way for such modern scholars to turn, incorporating serious scholarly results within a hermeneutical approach guided primarily by faith and love in the Tradition of the Church, not grants and publications in the academic cursus honorum of backbiting and selfishness.

I read an interesting thing today somewhere, the advice of an Orthodox priest to someone who was perhaps getting in a little over his head in theological reading: Never read for longer than you pray in a day. It’s an imbalance between the mental and Spiritual that is common, to spend much time reading theological texts, learning the intricacies of various synods, heresies, and so on, while not having the Spiritual life which would provide the proper context for all such knowledge. It’s only in such an environment that these pieces of information really take on value at all. It is only in this way that all such things can truly be understood, from inside the Tradition of the Church, to which they properly belong. The Church Fathers knew this, that their scholarship was secondary to a life of prayer. Some of us need to learn the same lesson.

10 Replies to “Wise fools”

  1. This is one for the ages, Kevin. In past times it would have been folly to take up biblical or patristic studies “to make a living.” And it was hard to take them up out of disordered curiosity, since the texts were so hard to come by. The danger isn’t peculiar to our time, but it’s characteristic of our time. Kyrie eleison!

  2. Thanks, Mike. Yes, with greater availability comes higher potential for misuse, and we can see this in the way some ransack the Fathers for quotes to shore up the shaky walls of their man-made heresies even today. The way forward is clear, and we should be unstintingly firm: these works, all of them, are only properly understood by someone living a life of prayer within the Tradition of the Church. A purely academic approach may be able to cover grammar and such superficial trivialities, but the import of these texts lies in the effect on a person’s Spiritual life, in the communion of the Saints. There can be no compromise, as though suggesting that the approaches are remotely equivalent, or that the academic is even remotely adequate to the task at hand.

  3. Incidentally, it was this post, To Know God, by Father Stephen Freeman at Glory to God for All Things, which is the source of the above partly mis-remembered quotation of an Abbot, not a Priest, “You should never read more hours in a day than you pray.” The account is from the book A Pilgrimage to Dzhvari, by Valeria Alfeyeva, the mother of Bishop Hilarion Alfayev. I had been unable to remember where I’d seen that until being reminded by a post at Pseudo-Polymath. Good job, Mark! I highly recommend Father Freeman’s blog.

  4. May you always misremember so eloquently.

    Nothing shows up the difference between “theology” then and now better than Evagrios’s line: A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian. But I’m sure you can misremember it better than I just did!

  5. It’s good advice. “Deep-versed in books, and shallow in himself” might describe a few of us. The spiritual pride of the teaching classes — by definition accustomed to be surrounded by those less educated than themselves — has been remarked on in the past.

    The vanity of some great scholars can be extraordinary. Indeed I can think of a number of scholars whose work I admire greatly who have fallen here. Some of our ‘big men’ of scholarship are pgymies in character. I go to very few conferences, but I never attend one without encountering some instance of it.

    Perhaps, even, it might be true of us in our more limited way?

  6. Absolutely, Roger, though I don’t think we need to separate ourselves from it. In flesh, a little necrosis will lead to more, and in character, so will pride. The Christian life is not simply one for study, as a series of themes or subjects, as though it could be subjected to a Library of Congress card catalog’s classification, but it’s a way of life and transformation of our being in full, in body, mind, spirit, and soul. Anything that interferes with that transformative aspect of Divine Grace operating in our lives needs to be rooted out and destroyed, just as to halt the spread of necrosis, medical personnel will cut out the affected tissues. A soulless, prideful academic approach to the Scriptures, however qualified by oneself, however incipient, needs to be obliterated from the lives of all those of us who seek a room in their Father’s House, regardless of the consequences to reputation and other worldly matters. And frankly, even playing by numbers, there are millions more people who are interested in sharing faith and learning from a faithful approach to Scriptures and culture who couldn’t give a fig about the latest scholarly discussions on historiography in the Old Testament, pseudepigraphy in the New Testament, and postmodern readings in Patristics. Such scholarship is critical scholarship in it’s etymological sense: discerning scholarship, applying the best of training to the best of our abilities to discover the truth of a matter. The Christian God is God of everything good, everything holy, and that includes our scholarship. If it is neither good nor holy, then we should either not be doing it, or we should change so that it is as good and as holy as we are capable of making it.

    That, at least, is the direction I’m pushing myself, the consequences be damned.

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